Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Enriched Environments Improve Cognitive Resilience

An engaging environment improves learning, memory, the immune system, and even recovery from brain injury.  Intellectual stimulation, provided by a challenging profession, is one component of an enriched environment.  Other characteristics of an enriched environment include play, novelty, variety, and challenge.  Scientists believe this is due in part to the MEF2 gene.

Mice raised with running wheels and a variety of toys had higher levels of the gene MEF2 in their brains than mice who grew up in deprivation, in cages with no toys.  Mice in the enriched environment also performed better on learning and memory tasks.  

Researchers then manipulated the MEF2 in new groups of mice.  When researchers genetically removed the MEF2 from a group of mice, they were unable to benefit from the enriched environment and they performed cognitively like the environmentally deprived mice.  When researchers increased MEF2 in a group of young mice, they showed less cognitive decline later in life.

This research suggests that MEF2 has a role in cognitive potential and cognitive resilience.  Enhancing MEF2 could improve learning and memory, as well as protect against dementia.  This research is supported by other studies that show that stimulating environments improve cognition as well as mental health by boosting the growth and connection of brain cells, and by keeping the memory-processing hippocampus young with greater potential for plasticity. 

  • Six weeks of enhanced surroundings (toys, running wheels, open space, and unlimited food and water) improved recovery from brain injuries in mice, compared to a control group living in a standard cage. 
  • Two weeks in a multisensory enriched environment (toys, wood shavings, running wheel, exploration tubes, swings, and a colored nest box) improved the immune system in mice, making them more effective in fighting infections.  Researchers described the results as remarkable, created only from a shift in the living conditions of the mice, comparing the experience to a 2-week vacation.

Takeaway: To improve brain health and function, include a variety of multisensory activities in your leisure time: games, puzzles, sports, arts, travel, and nature getaways.  And take vacations!

Sources

Neuroscience News, Gene Linked to Cognitive Resilience in the Elderly, Nov. 3, 2021, https://neurosciencenews.com/genetics-aging-cognition-19590/.

Sergio Espeso-Gil, et al., Environmental Enrichment Induces Epigenomic and Genome Organization Changes Relevant for Cognition, Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, May 5, 2021, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnmol.2021.664912/full.

Sara Zocher, et al., Environmental Enrichment Preserves a Young DNA Methylation Landscape in the Aged Mouse Hippocampus, Nature Communications, June 23, 2021, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-23993-1.

Neuroscience News, Enriched Environments Hold Promise for Brain Injury Patients, Nov 11, 2014, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-23993-1.

Neuroscience News, Toys and Enriched Surroundings Can Help Fight Infection: Mouse Study, Oct 3, 2016, https://neurosciencenews.com/infection-toys-environment-5183/.

Christopher Bergland, Enriched Environments Build Better Brains, Psychology Today, Mar 7, 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201203/enriched-environments-build-better-brains.

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